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Every large city in the Midwest – and probably in the country – has a great children’s museum and zoo. Madison, Wisconsin certainly does.

But this hipster college & capitol city has a lot of other family fun you wouldn’t necessarily find recommended in guidebooks.

I took my kids (ages 6 and 8) to spend a few nights here in August, and here were some of our favorite things to do:

1. Ella’s Deli restaurant and carousel

There’s an 11-page dessert menu. Need I say more?

I will dream about the turtle sundae I had there, served on top of a warm piece of pound cake. It’s the kind of dessert you can only justify ordering on vacation.

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While the food is good, Ella’s main draw is its wacky decor and old-fashioned, outdoor carousel. It’s hard to describe the restaurant’s interior … a moving carnival inside a Jewish deli? Put it this way: everything in the restaurant is colorful and moves.

Most tables have some sort of built-in game on the tabletop. One had magnet pens so you could pick up items under the table glass. Ours had a light-up “moving” aquarium that we activated by pushing buttons.

As we ate, a clown swung over our heads, a paper mache Superman floated past, and a replica of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club band hovered behind my shoulder. Outside the window, the carousel ($1 per person per ride) spun around.

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2. Fishing or stand-up paddleboarding on Lake Wingra

For $10, I got two fishing poles for an hour, a plastic tub of live nightcrawlers, and a quick how-to fishing lesson. We sat on the pier with our poles dangling in the calm lake, staring at the sailboats, passing kayakers, the trees and birds.

This was our first-ever fishing trip, and to be honest, my kids got bored quickly. It was late in the day and we didn’t catch anything except seaweed. I twisted my body and squealed in horror every time I had to bait a hook. But overall, I loved this outing. The lake is in a residential area in the center of the town, and it’s peaceful and scenic.

My 6-year-old wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to do the stand-up paddleboarding, but I saw people using them and it’s definitely on my to-do list for next time. Kayaks, canoes, sailboats and paddle boat rentals are also available at very reasonable prices.

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3. The water balloon slingshots and mini-golf at Vitense Golfland

summer 2011 031Skip their trampoline basketball and head right to the water balloon slingshots.

There are two shelters with half-walls on opposite ends. I went on one side and the kids went on the other. We proceeded to sling water balloons at each other, sometimes hitting and sometimes missing. But when I hit the target on their roof, KA-POW! They got doused with a “depth charge” of water. Super fun on a hot summer day.

The place is known for its massive, colorful outdoor mini-golf and driving ranges (I saw lots of golf camps there). But I recommend the indoor mini-golf course, which featured a different Madison sites on each hole. There are also batting cages for ages 8 and up.

4. Shopping/dining around the capitol building.

A cool mix of businesses coexist on the streets surrounding Madison’s capitol building — an incense and tye-dye shop, a Yuppie toy store, art galleries, and bratwurst restaurants. It’s a nice area to walk around and explore. Some places we liked include fun gifts at Pop Deluxe, children’s toys and clothes at Capitol Kids, Wisconsin delicacies at State Street Brats and tasty brews and surprisingly good food (plus a great kids menu) at Great Dane Pub and Brewing.

5. Biking around town.

Madison might be the most bike-friendly city I’ve ever seen. There are lanes on the streets, and bike racks everywhere. If your family likes to pedal, you can bike your way around the downtown area, the university’s campus, or some of the bike paths around the lakes.

Near the capitol building, you can rent from Williamson Bicycle Rides, or on the University of Wisconsin campus

6. Cave of the Mounds

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It’s about a 30 minute-drive outside of Madison, but kids will love this place.

As they tour the huge cave filled with colorful and interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations, they learn a little science and history. If your tour guide gives you the option of experiencing “total darkness” inside the cave, do it! My 6-year-old nervously held my hand when the guide flicked off the lights, but then spent the next week telling everyone how cool it was to not be able to see your hand in front of your face.

Outside the cave, you can walk around the beautifully landscaped grounds and mine for gemstones and fossils. There’s a free, enormous sandbox where you can put on a play hardhat and dig for them. Or, if you want to take home your gems and fossils as souvenirs, you can buy bags of treasure-filled sand from the gift shop and mine them with in the running water.

(Full disclosure: The cave provided us with complimentary tour passes.)

7. Dane County Farmers Market

summer 2011 058My kids aren’t big farmers market lovers unless there’s a freshly made cookie in it for them. But on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the fall, a large, pleasant farmers market is set up next to the capitol building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The kids got their melt-all-over-their-hands chocolate chip cookie (it was 90 degrees outside) and I bought some freshly made garlic and dill cheese curds.

There are also a lot of food trucks set up in front of that area, which are popular with the state workers. They sell everything from Italian beef sandwiches to Mexican fare. We had some delicious popcorn from a popcorn truck (sorry, forgot to write down the truck’s name, but it’s the only all-popcorn truck).

8. Babcock Hall Dairy Store

Parking nearby at this on-campus ice cream and cheese shop is impossible, but there are 3 good reasons to visit:

1) It’s a nice stop while walking around the University of Wisconsin campus.

2) You can walk upstairs and look down through the glass window at their ice cream-, milk- and cheese-making operations. There’s no explanation of what they’re doing, but there are big machines and people walking around in lab coats. Dairy production is science these days.

3) The ice cream is above-average, and they have some creative, fun flavors to try.

9. Swim in the indoor pool at the Crowne Plaza Hotel

Every traveling parent knows that the key to a successful vacation with kids is a hotel with an indoor pool and game room that’s open until 11pm. You get that at the Crowne Plaza. My kids could not wait to get back from our day’s activities and play in their pool. 

Big bonus #1: Around the pool, there are nice tables and chairs with pads, so if you want to work on your laptop or lay and read a magazine while the kids splash around, you can.

Our room wasn’t fancy, but it was clean, the staff was super-friendly, and the hotel was easy to find and centrally located on Washington Avenue.

Big bonus #2: kids eat free at the hot breakfast bar.

(Full disclosure: The Crowne Plaza provided our accommodations).